Musings about life

20 similarities between aid workers and long-distance runners

On this blog, I write about my life in the human rights and humanitarian fields just as much as I write about my running. For me, there is a clear connection – I am massively passionate about both, so it is hard for me to separate the two. However, for those of you out there who fall into one category or the other, you might not see the similarities as clearly.  I thought I’d dedicate this post to all of the aid workers and long-distance runners out there… you might just have more in common than you realized!

belinda and UN

  1. We both have strong quad muscles.  Ultrarunners and aid workers have to spend a lot of time squatting in latrines or out in the bush.  If you don’t start off with good quads, you’ll develop them quickly.
Helpful message on the bathroom door here in South Sudan
  1. We’re obsessed about gaining “street cred”. The tougher the race, the tougher the field location, the more credibility we earn amongst our peers. We pretend to complain about that ridiculous 100-miler or how crazy it was to live in [insert war zone here], but we secretly love it. Stories of passing out in one’s own vomit on the side of a trail, encountering armed militia at a roadblock, running for two days straight drinking nothing but diluted gatorade (or heaven forbid our own urine), or suffering from malaria in the midst of a cholera outbreak are not uncommon in the ultrarunning and aid worker circles. Totally annoying, but it’s true. #humblebrag
  1. Vomiting and diarrhea are just a part of the game.  Ask any runner or aid worker about the last time they experienced stomach issues. Guaranteed the answer will either be “this morning!”, “last week”, or “oh man, let me tell you about the time when….”
Stomach problems mid-race
  1. We eat the same food. The dehydrated meals and energy bars often eaten in ultras are not dissimilar to MREs (Meal, Read-to-Eat) kept in bunkers in conflict zones. If it comes in a package and has a three-year expiry date, chances are it is on the ultraunning-aid worker menu. Both groups also tend to be obsessed with food (for different reasons).
Two elite ultrarunners taking their nutrition seriously
Two elite ultrarunners taking their nutrition seriously
  1. Intense experiences = strong friendships (and maybe a few flings).  Whether it is the sheer amount of time spent together, shared passions, or the intensity of the situation, relationships can form quickly within the ultrarunning and humanitarian communities alike. Long-lasting friendships are not uncommon in either field…. nor are short-term flings. Or so I hear. Cough.

friends pic

  1. …But relationships can be complicated.  Despite the ease with which relationships can start for ultrarunners or aid workers, you need an instructional guide to date either type. For any of my current or future love interests (purposely being ambiguous here 🙂 ), here is a helpful list of dating pros and cons:
  • Why you should date an aid worker: See #3. “They know how to fix a bicycle, using only a toothpick, some dental floss and a few small twigs.” Or perhaps #15. “Use ‘Moral Credits’ gained from dating an aid worker to offset the morally hazardous aspects of your life.” It’s totally true.
  • Why you shouldn’t date an aid worker: For instance, take #33. “[They] have silver card memberships and points to airlines you –or the airport authority- never heard of, and expect you to use these for your joint holidays.” Seriously, Aeroflot and Fly540 are the way to go, right?
  • Don’t date a girl who travels: Applies to ultrarunners and aid workers alike. “She will forget to check in with you when she arrives at her destination. She’s busy living in the present. She talks to strangers. She will meet many interesting, like-minded people from around the world who share her passion and dreams. She will be bored with you.”
  • Date a girl who runs: “Date a girl who runs because she’s got more on her mind than makeup and keeping up with the neighbors because she’s too busy trying to keep up with herself, outpace herself, outdo herself. If you want her to stay interested, set your own intentions about how you can be a better You.”
  1. We inspire and frighten. Family and friends think we are amazing and absolutely insane in equal measure… which works to our benefit. We often get invited to BBQs and parties as the token crazy person.
  1. We have our own special language. We use acronyms and lingo no one else can understand. Ultrarunners will talk of bonking, condom jackets, getting ‘chicked’, and DNF’ing, whereas aid workers will chat about NFIs, WASH, PoCs, PSNs, PWDs and cluster meetings (not as dirty as it sounds).
  1. We have a unique sense of fashion.  Between the compression socks and the oversized cargo vests, flips flops and bandanas, we aren’t exactly setting trends (at least not any kind of trend you’d want to follow).
compression socks
Thanks Matt for letting me steal a photo of you to show off your socks… oh wait, I didn’t ask. Oops 🙂 You look good!
angelina jolie
Even Angelina can’t make this look good

10. Cult-ish behaviour. We are constantly trying to pull you into own cult. (“If you can run 26 miles, you can run 50 miles!” “Quit the private sector – I feel passion in my work everyday!”). I thought this was super annoying until I drank the purple kool-aid too… Now I can tell you that you honestly should become an ultrarunner. Or an aid worker. Or an ultrarunning aid worker. It’s awesome!

11. Love of wildlife. Camels, goats, and penguins are all beloved creatures.



12.  Love of the ‘selfie’. We have a deep appreciation for artistic expression through the selfie. Okay, admittedly, ultrarunners are probably guilty of this more than aid workers, but I suspect there are a bunch of closet aid worker selfie-takers out there (other than me).

running selfies
The hilarious woman who selfie-instagrammed hot guys every mile during her half marathon
Selfie on the UN helicopter
Selfie on the UN helicopter

13. Access to clean water is always a concern. Okay, this one is hard to make light of….

“Is this drinkable?” -Running in Kyrgyzstan
My ‘home’ in Mingkaman, South Sudan

14. “Who’s got extra toilet paper?” Bodily functions and weird skin rashes or chafing are totally acceptable conversation topics.

Courtesy of Takbo Printipe
Courtesy of Takbo Printipe

15. We believe in the healing powers of junk food. Whenever we get grumpy, all it really takes is a chocolate bar or a tube of pringles to calm us down. Every time.


16. We live for the extremes. When we are training or working, we give it our all. But when the race is over or it is time for R&R…? All hell breaks loose. Erm, take my last trip to London for example… #trainwreck #butasuperfunone

During the ICE Ultra
During the ICE Ultra
The party after the ICE Ultra...
The party after the ICE Ultra…

17. Tents provide perfectly acceptable accommodation. Showers and deodorant optional.

My accommodation during RacingThePlanet Nepal
My accommodation during RacingThePlanet Nepal
My home as an aid worker in South Sudan
My home as an aid worker in South Sudan

18. Outdoors = bliss. We prefer to be outside rather than stuck behind a desk in an office. Every time.


19. Ziplocs aren’t just for sandwiches.  They provide excellent wallets, iphone cases, clothing bags….Sweat-proof, storm-proof, insect-proof!


20. Anything is possible. We dream BIG and constantly take on the impossible… because we believe there is no other way to live other than outside our comfort zone.


Check out my interview this week with Julian Bittel as part of his daily podcast on Inspiring Adventurers (available for free download from his site or on iTunes!) 

Also worth a watch: the IRC has put out a short 3-min video on the conflict in South Sudan. My interview starts at 1:45. Please watch.

18 comments on “20 similarities between aid workers and long-distance runners

  1. Julie Case

    Great post!

  2. YOU are one amazing woman!! Stop by next time you are in Montreal. . . Beer, burger and a run on me :-))

    Really enjoy your posts! Thanks 🙂

    • Thanks, Bruce!! Can I have a run, wine and a salad instead? Bwahahaha… So high-maintenance… Just kidding. Sounds lovely! Hope all is well back in Canada. Seriously missing home right now!

  3. I agree about the cult behaviour thing:) When I am among other long distance runners I talk differently, behave differently, I have a different body shape. I know that I am in a tight group, a secret society if you will, and I can finally be myself:)

  4. Hi Stephanie. I’d like to offer some assistance to your “Free to Run” initiative. Can you please email me when you have a chance?

  5. Pingback: Daily News, Mon, May 19

  6. This definitely made me smile. I think all of us, sometimes need something light and humorous in our days! I laughed at the cultish behavior point, but totally agree with the lifelong friendships, as the friends I made when I traveled still stay with me today =)

    • Me too 🙂 Happy it gave you a chuckle! I’ve met so many amazing people in both fields. Not sure what I would do without them.

  7. Hilarious post paired with hilarious photos just made my day!! As for the negative comments, I think that we should all just take things lightly. No hating!

    • Ha, I’m so glad! And agreed. I think we all just need to lighten up 🙂 I’ve just deleted them (crackdown on free expression, ha). Too many other important things to worry about!

  8. Pingback: Recuperating through running… in Zanzibar | Ultra Runner Girl

  9. Too funny. Step out of your comfort zone!

  10. You are living a life of my dream – I guess all it takes is to live outside my comfort zone. ANYTHING is possible! It seems like such a long way to go but you motivate me!

  11. Pingback: Top Ten Similarities Between UltraRunners and Babies – Ultra Runner Girl

  12. Me > She will forget to check in with you when she arrives at her destination. She’s busy living in the present. She talks to strangers. She will meet many interesting, like-minded people from around the world who share her passion and dreams. She will be bored with you.” Oops! Sorry honey! 😀 Great post.

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